Change the debate format to let candidates question one another


Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney speaks during the second presidential debate with US President Barack Obama October 16, 2012 at the David Mack Center at Hofstra University. If the candidates were allowed to question each other rather than field questions from the moderator or audience, they might produce a more revealing and enlivened debate.


Mandel Ngan

OWL’S HEAD, Maine — Last Tuesday's town hall debate raised to an even more obvious level the question still hanging in the air from the first Obama-Romney set-to two weeks ago: where was President Obama in Denver?

Tuesday night, he was certainly all there. And just as Obama supporters were well aware that Obama had taken a hit in Denver, Romney backers knew that Obama was the winner of the second debate.

But there's a big difference between Romney's win and Obama's win — and it's not to Obama's advantage.

Going into the first debate, Romney was seen by many voters as awkward, out of touch, uncomfortable in his own quarter-billion dollar skin. Obama didn't just lose the debate that night by his somnolent performance, he let Romney, by contrast, come across — and for the first time to many — as engaged and authentic.

And that new Romney, the Romney whom some polls had put in the lead going into Tuesday's debate, is not going away. Obama more than regained his old luster. But Romney was, and will remain, the new Romney — a much more potent opponent for Obama than he faced before Denver. What Obama lost by letting Romney shine, he can never regain.

There were actually some matters of real substance — women's issues, immigration, and, most notably, the Benghazi assassinations. And Obama won on all these issues. But the trouble with these debates remains the format. Whether it's Jim Lehrer asking the questions and then meekly disappearing into the woodwork, or a bunch of local Long Islanders, managed by Candy Crowley, asking pre-approved questions, the format permits the two candidates to repeat endlessly their little memorized formulas. For Romney, it's his five-point plan; for Obama, his support for the middle class; and for both, it's jobs, jobs, and jobs.

A more interesting, and revealing, format would be to let each candidate ask the other a few questions. Romney asks Obama a question, then following Obama's answer, Romney rebuts and Obama gets to answer the rebuttal. Then reverse the process. And let each have briefing books available with actual quotations and facts. Sure, the moderator controls the time, and like Crawley on Benghazi can correct the record, but the two candidates face off directly with each other and have facts available to back up their claims. That's a real debate.

Imagine if Romney got to pose the following four questions to Obama:

1) When you came into office, you promised you would bring unemployment down to below 6 percent. It's just barely below 8 percent. For your first two years in office, you had a Democratic Congress, so what did you and the Democrats do wrong and why?

2) The deficit has gone up by over $4 trillion during your first four years as presidency. Rating agencies have cut our bond rating. What went wrong and how will you correct it?

3) You promised to close Guantanamo. Was that just a naive promise by an inexperienced candidate or is there another reason why have you reneged on your promise?

4) Why do you let China continue to get away with undervaluing its currency which causes even greater loss of American jobs?

And Obama to Romney:

1) You attack Obamacare, but it is modeled on the healthcare program you created for Massachusetts. Healthcare costs continue to rise much faster than inflation. Over 40 million Americans have no healthcare. What's your suggestion?

2) Please spell out your approach to immigration -- how to deal with the 12 million illegal immigrants already here and with the children of illegal immigrants?

3) You would defund Planned Parenthood. Do you agree with the Republican Party's position against women's right to choose?

4) You've been seen on a video giving a lengthy denunciation of 47 percent of Americans for being on the government dole. Now you claim you didn't mean what you said? How do you square saying one thing in private to big donors and another in public to the rest of the country?

The point of a debate should be to air real differences between two parties that, as our dysfunctional Congress makes quite clear, have explicit philosophical differences. What comes through instead is a series of platitudes to describe their own positions and a list of, often erroneous or exaggerated, charges against the other.

As we go into the third debate this coming Monday on foreign policy, barring a major gaffe on either side — the equivalent of Gerry Ford's claim that Poland was not part of the Soviet bloc — it's hard to see that much will change.

It's now estimated that there are about nine swing states, with a small fraction of the vote in each swing state up for grabs. Extrapolating from the turnout for the last presidential election, that means there are less than a million voters out there whose votes will decide who wins the election.

The parties and their PACs are going to spend as much as $500 million over the next three weeks to change the minds of 1 percent of our voters. Democracy's messy and all that — but there's something wrong with that picture. I'd love to hear Obama and Romney tell us how they would fix it.

Mac Deford is retired after a career as a foreign service officer, an international banker, and a museum director. He lives at Owls Head, Maine and still travels frequently to the Middle East.